The Senses : Touch Copy
The major senses of the horse include sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. It does not take even the casual observer long to appreciate the sensitivity of the horse’s sight, hearing or smell. And anyone who has had the opportunity to pet a horse or see horses grooming one another can attest to the acuity of their sense of touch. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Horses are extremely sensitive to touch and have a highly developed sense of touch. They use touch as a means of communication and to explore their physical environment. Skilled riders can benefit from the horse’s natural sensitivity by developing extremely subtle cues for communication. A rider can affect a horse’s movement simply through their breathing or minute shifts in their weight.
Certain areas of the body are especially sensitive and can react to even the slightest stimuli (think of the reaction to a fly landing on the horse’s shoulder). Other common areas of sensitivity include the flank (above the stifle) and inner thigh where the skin is thinner and has many nerve endings. The muzzle and ears are highly sensitized, as well as the corner of the mouth and the ears.
Thin sheets of muscle under the broad areas of skin allow the horse to shake the skin rapidly in response to an irritating sensation. Even the roots of the mane and tail hairs are equipped with touch receptors. The whisker hairs and eyelashes help the horse to sense its surroundings in dim light.
Conversely, even the horse can be desensitized by harsh or repetitive contact that lacks intention. This can be seen in lesson horses that have developed a calloused tolerance of their inexperienced riders (making them worth their weight in gold!).
Horses will, when given the opportunity, touch and “groom” one another for mental and physical well-being. This attention can be passed on to their guardians or handlers, sometimes to the point of being pushy and unwelcome. While it’s important to maintain good manners for all involved, don’t underestimate the horse’s need to touch, as well as to be touched. If they don’t have this opportunity with other horses, it may benefit the horse to allow it to sometimes “groom” humans, such as while being massaged or groomed, as long as they learn to do so appropriately (no teeth)!
Through the practice of massage, you inevitably will increase your own sensitivity while touching the horse. You will also create a greater sense of awareness in the horse for his body and perhaps a renewed sensitivity to human touch, which he may have developed a habit of tuning out.
Because the superficial nervous system of the horse is so specialized, massage work is quickly integrated into the system. Often great effects can be achieved with minimal pressure, because the nerve endings are so receptive and responsive. This can be an important point to bear in mind when you feel the need to increase your pressure during a massage. Oftentimes when we feel the need to increase pressure it is in response to resistance from the tissue we are contacting. In the case of a prey animal such as the horse, this resistance is usually better overcome by using a more subtle technique than that which created the resistance initially.